I can’t remember when it was that I first saw Urban Jürgensen’s watches, but I suspect it was sometime in the very early 2000s. It might very well have been on that irreplaceable treasure trove of early classic online watch photography, Steve G’s Watch Launchpad, some time around 2002 or 2003; the watch in question being a lovely Ref. 8, with a black dial. It might also have been on ThePuristS.com (now PuristsPro) in Dr. Thomas Mao’s write-up of his Ref. 3 Perpetual Calendar, from 2001. (It says something about how old the latter story is, at least in Internet years, that Dr. Mao calls the 37mm case of the Ref. 3 "surprisingly large." I have, with some feeling, watched some of my favorite internet watch stories go dark over the last couple of decades and it always makes me happy to run across old friends like these).
Wherever it was, I remember being very, very taken with the designs – actually, with the whole package; the combination of case and lug shapes and proportions, the very fine guilloché work on the dial, and the observatory style hands. It all seemed to add up to something that touched a lot of points in watch history and design but managed to seem fresh and original at the same time. Recently I had a chance to get reacquainted with the company by (finally) getting to meet with them at Baselworld, and having a chance to (finally) get one of their watches on my wrist, which was a distinct pleasure after having admired them from a distance for so many years. Let’s dig a little into both the Big 8, and the history of Urban Jürgensen.
Urban Jürgensen In Copenhagen and Neuchâtel
Urban Jürgensen has had a rather complicated past – as with many older watch brands, when exactly you consider the company to have begun depends on how you define a company, and often, a family whose name became that of a modern brand, was involved in watchmaking long before a company was formally incorporated. In the case of Urban Jürgensen, the family was involved in watchmaking as early as the mid-1700s, when Jürgen Jürgensen traveled from Copenhagen to Neuchâtel, where he studied with Jaques-Frédèric Houriet (nowadays the latter is best known for having invented the spherical balance spring). Urban Jürgensen, his son, followed his father to Neuchâtel, and through Houriet, was introduced to Breguet and John Arnold. Urban Jürgensen ended up marrying Houriet’s daughter Sophie and became a prolific maker of clocks and scientific instruments as well, before passing away at the age of 53, in 1830.
Urban Jürgensen’s work was really exceptional – certainly, it reflects credit on his teachers, but also on his ability to absorb their experience and make it his own. The above watch is from 1812 and was auctioned last year at Antiquorum in Geneva for 12 times its estimate, which is rather astonishing. It’s got a pump-action winding system, a chain-and-fusée with Harrison’s maintaining power (which keeps power going to the balance even when you are winding the watch; this is essential for a chronometer with a fusée, as otherwise the watch would stop as you wind the chain off the mainspring barrel and back onto the cone) as well as John Arnold’s version of the chronometer detent escapement. It also has a cylindrical balance spring.
Now of course, a firm whose founder died in 1830 can be expected to have gone through a few things over the course of almost two hundred years – several European and World Wars as well as any number of major and minor financial crises will do that. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the company was that thanks to Jürgen and Urban Jürgensen’s travels to Switzerland, the firm had both a Swiss branch, and a branch in Copenhagen, with the Swiss branch doing the bulk of the manufacturing. Eventually, however, the Copenhagen branch and the Swiss branch ceased manufacturing, with the ownership of the Urban Jürgensen name becoming divided between a US-based company, and one in Copenhagen. The brand was revived by Peter Baumgartner, who acquired full rights to the company in 1985, and who partnered with the famous English watchmaker, Derek Pratt. The latter passed away in 2009, and Baumgartner, in 2010, but not before having introduced a number of exceptional watches, including the Ref. 1 perpetual calendar, as well as being awarded a patent for a unique, wristwatch-capable version of the chronometer detent escapement. Pratt’s work for Urban Jürgensen included some extremely high grade pocket watches, such as this tourbillon with remontoire d’égalité and power reserve.
In 2014, Søren Jenry Petersen (a former senior executive at Nokia) acquired Urban Jürgensen, with a group of Danish investors, putting the company – after many decades – back in Danish hands.
The Reference Big 8
The Ref. Big 8 is, as you might have guessed from the name, a larger version of the Ref. 8, which comes in a 37mm diameter case. The Big 8 is a 40mm watch, although it doesn’t feel or wear big, the "Big" notwithstanding. This is probably due to the use of very, very traditional mid-20th century fine watchmaking design cues throughout, including the relatively slim stepped bezel, the recessed crown, the elegantly formed teardrop lugs, and the engine-turned dial.
The hands on both the Ref. 8, and Ref. Big 8 are very elaborately made – the body for both is heat-blued steel. The centers of both hands are lathe-turned gold, as is the "eye" of the hour hand, which is friction fit in place. The tip of the minute hand is gently radiused (another touch which gives the watch an appealingly old-school feel) and in terms of fineness and quality of work, the hands of the Big 8 are a quiet but definite reproach to what you get from many other luxury watch brands, where all too often (in fact, depressingly often) you see hands that can only be described as cheap-looking.
The case and dial work are similarly elaborate. The teardrop lugs are forged separately from the rest of the case and hand polished before being soldered in place (another nod to mid-century horological methods) and the dial is real guilloché, produced by traditional engine turning.
All this adds up to a very rich visual effect and one of the great pleasures of wearing the Big 8 was the amount of detail and obvious care that went into making every part, as well as how well all the elements came together.
The hands of the Big 8, and of Urban Jürgensen watches in general, are quite interesting not only for the craft that goes into them, but for the type of hands the company uses. They’re often mistaken for Breguet (or pomme) hands (both terms describe the same type of watch hands) but they’re not. Breguet hands have an eye at the tip of both the hour and minute hands, which is generally rather smaller than the eye you see on the hour hand in Urban Jürgensen watches. These are sometimes called "observatory" (observatoire) style hands – I presume due to their association with chronometers, although I’ve been unable to find any specific explanation so far for the term.
The combination of an engine turned dial with hands that resemble Breguet style hands is reminiscent of Breguet watches, of course, although I personally have always felt that Urban Jürgensen watches very much have their own character. Breguet’s style varied as it developed even during his own lifetime, although certainly pomme hands and an engine turned dial are signature looks; in wristwatches, though, I think the distinctive teardrop lugs, stepped bezel, smooth case flanks, and observatoire-style hands used by Urban Jürgensen add up to a watch with a clear design identity of its own (as well as offering a nice connection to the link in watchmaking history between Urban Jürgensen, and Breguet in the 19th century). Even back in the early 2000s, they never struck me as especially derivative of Breguet wristwatches per se. And, of course, the adoption of at least some of Breguet’s stylistic idioms has an honorable history – lord knows it was good enough for Dr. George Daniels, among others.
The movement is a modified F. Piguet 1160, which runs at 28,800 vph (there is a 21,600 vph version of the same movement as well). The movement’s fairly flat, at 5.20mm x 32mm, with two barrels and a 40 hour power reserve. F. Piguet is now Manufacture Blancpain, as most HODINKEE readers probably know, but its movements were at one time quite widely used among haute horlogerie manufacturers, in keeping with the time-honored Swiss ébauche tradition, and to me the presence of cal. 1160 here has a lot of charm – very much a connection to an aspect of traditional Swiss watchmaking which has acquired more of a negative connotation than it should.
If you’re of a mind to enjoy a modern watch with a tremendous amount of aesthetic charm derived from what was arguably the golden age of fine watch design, you’re probably going to get quite a kick out of wearing the Big 8. On the wrist, thanks to its slim dimensions and (relatively) modest diameter, it’s extremely comfortable – it has that property few watches have of really seeming to become a part of your body when you wear it.
The Big 8 is a fine, and very refined, wristwatch and one of the most attractive things about it, in addition to the quiet but definite high quality of every part of the watch, is that this sort of watchmaking has, almost without anyone noticing, become rather rare. To devote care and craft to the external aesthetics, in the context of traditional watch design, while at the same time taking advantage of the availability of a high grade movement, used to be the standard modus operandus for a lot of Swiss fine watchmaking, and the industry-wide rush to establish one’s brand (seemingly regardless of cost to both brand and consumer) as a manufacture has not necessarily been an entirely good thing, to say nothing of having resulted in what may very well be unsustainable pricing practices.
The Big 8 in steel is $15,300, which for the quality offered is I think a very attractive price. The pleasure of wearing a luxury watch can certainly derive to some degree from branding but for luxury to sustain its appeal, at some point it has to deliver on the promise that branding makes, and it’s no secret that in this era of mass luxury, this happens less and less. The Big 8 is a rarity not only among watches, but among modern luxury products in general – it’s something that the more you learn about, the happier you are you have it, and unlike so many luxury products these days, the chances of it becoming a source of regret to its owner as time goes by, are very small indeed.
The Urban Jurgensen Ref. Big 8 in stainless steel: case, 40 mm x 10.50 mm, with soldered teardrop lugs; water resistance 3 ATM/30 meters. Sapphire crystals front and back. Dial, hand-finished guilloché, solid sterling silver. Observatory style hands in gold and heat-blued stainless steel. Movement, modified F. Piguet caliber 1160, 28,800 vph, with two mainspring barrels and 40 hour power reserve, adjusted to 5 positions.
Find out more about Urban Jürgensen and the Ref. Big 8 at urbanjurgensen.com.